“The journey of rum with me has been an evolution,” Dominick Splendorio, owner of Zafra Cuban Restaurant & Rum Bar in New Haven, says on a recent Wednesday evening. “I started out as a rum novice, very familiar with Bacardi and Captain Morgan, but never really dove deep into the sipping-rum arena. But now I find myself sipping on rum that’s been aged 21 years.”
Today if you want to learn more about rum, Splendorio is the guy to ask, and his rum bar — which is home to 250 varieties of the spirit distilled from cane sugar or molasses — is the place to visit. You’ll find vintages made in New England and across the Caribbean. There are rums aged in whiskey barrels, rums aged in sherry barrels, rums that have absorbed the flavors of these barrels for 5, 10, even more than 20 years.
From his regular perch behind the bar beneath a picture of his Cuban grandfather, Splendorio takes great pleasure in serving as a guide to this spirit world, describing the contents poured from each bottle with the know-how of a sommelier and the prowess of a gifted food writer. Speaking about Bully Boy Distillers’ Boston Rum, he notes it is molasses based and aged in whiskey barrels. “The whiskey barrels bring out a certain oakiness and vanilla finish to it, super approachable and super smooth,” he says.
A sip confirms this description, and with Splendorio’s guidance, I’m drawn deeper into the world of rum than ever before, falling in love with this Bully Boy rum as well as others, most notably a Zafra Master Reserve aged 21 years (the word “zafra” refers to Cuba’s sugarcane harvest).
Rum is also the star of many of the signature cocktails offered at the bar, including the exceptional mojito, made with white rum and muddled mint and served with a sliced sugar cane.
The taste of these drinks is matched by the Cuban-inspired cuisine. The Cubano sandwich is a must-try with its slow-roasted pork and showstopping side of yuca fries. The empanadas, grilled shrimp skewers and tres leches cake are also impressive.
Splendorio opened Zafra in 2011 after he was inspired by the Art Deco tiles within the New Haven storefront. “It made me think of South Beach, and I had a feeling I could do a Cuban-themed restaurant,” he says. “We caught the wave just in time because the growth of rum as a sipping spirit has exploded over the last seven years.” After my visit here, I’m happy to ride that wave.